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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Gordon Cairnie 1895-1973

By Michael Ryan

GORDON CAIRNIE is not a proper subject for an obituary. He was much too alive ever to die, and much too real to be written about in the usual obituary words. The New York Times said after he died that the Grolier Bookshop was an American equivalent of Shakespeare and Company, and that Gordon was like Sylvia Beach. A lot of people who never knew him must have believed that, but of course it wasn't true. Gordon was a tough old Canadian, not a purple-ascotted Left Bank aesthete.

It's much easier to reminisce about Gordon than to eulogize him. I spoke to him not long before he died. I frankly can't remember what we talked about, or what he said. I never thought it would be the last time I saw him.

Gordon used to claim that he never read anything but Publisher's Weekly. But one customer, who first went into his shop as a freshman in 1968, looking for a copy of a book by James Dickey, knows that he was lying. Gordon gave me five good reasons, and a 20 minute lecture, on why I shouldn't waste my money on James Dickey.

Last year, while I was looking through old volumes of the Crimson researching something I was writing, I came across a story from the 1920s about an airplane crash on Soldiers' Field. I have forgotten the pilot's name, but his passenger was Gordon Cairnie. The only casualties were a few clarinets and an oboe or two, left scattered on the ground when the Harvard Band ran like hell to avoid premature meetings with their Maker. Later I asked Gordon about that story.

"I remember that. Some damn fool--I can't remember his name--took me up in this plane he rented. We got over Widener and the fuel line was blocked. The damn fool told me he knew something about flying. We nearly took off the top of the electric plant--where Eliot House is now. We barely got down alive, and then the Harvard football team tried to tear the plane to pieces for souvenirs."

If you believed every word Gordon said, then half the world was made up of damn fools. But no one who gave as much credit and did as many favors as Gordon did could have believed it.

The biggest damn fool I ever heard of was the one who read the Crimson story last spring about Gordon's retirement plans and believed it. Gordon had been sick for a while--his foot was killing him--and started talking about going back to Canada, leaving Cambridge forever. This particular damn fool came to him with an offer to buy the shop. As Gordon told it, and I hope it wasn't true, this guy offered to buy out the shop, lock and stock--I don't think Gordon owned a barrel--for $600. Then, with the benefit of the Grolier's location, and Gordon's good will, he proposed to open Harvard Square's first porno book store. Gordon threw the damn fool out, God bless him, and went on running the shop till the day he died.

GORDON never succumbed to the greatest temptation of age, the urge to be venerated. The day before Commencement, last month, I watched him trade jokes with his friend, Bob Tonis, as earthy as ever. Last spring, at a Signet dinner, he matched his table companions, drink for drink, with that unpalatable vodka he used to like. And at a dinner a year ago, while James Tate was reading his poetry, Gordon sneezed, long and loud. Tate snapped "Shut up Gordon," and Gordon laughed as loud as he had sneezed.

Gordon was a friend of Eliot, and Ginsberg, and Creeley, and Lowell, and Pound. He was, as Pound put it, "no capon priest, but a man o' men." Although Harvard, like any other college, has more than its fill of undergraduates who write sestinas, and think in Alexandrines, like Bunthorne in Patience or Fitzgerald's D'Invilliers, these were not Gordon's men and women. His were the honest, hard-working poets, who loved life, and loved their craft, and wrote, and thought, and lived, far from the ivory tower of academics.

I suppose it's really true that he is gone, because yesterday I walked by the shop and saw hours posted--Monday through Friday, something to something else. Gordon always came and went as he pleased.

Perhaps they can keep the store going, but that's not the point, is it? I must have been there 200 times in my five years, but I only bought a dozen or two books. No one ever went to the Grolier for books.

And that was the greatness of Gordon Cairnie.

Gordon, may the earth rest lightly upon you.

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